June 25, 2022

Broadway—Many Kinds of Media—& Me


For the second time this month, there will be no regular post here. It’s not because there haven’t been shows to see and talk about: although it will be weeks before anything new opens on Broadway, a steady stream of comedies, dramas and musicals have been opening off-Broadway. And I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good number of them. But I’ve been busy in other ways too and so instead of posting a review as I usually do, I’m going to share some of that other stuff with you.

The Monday after the Tony Awards ceremony, my friend Patrick Pacheco invited me to record an episode of his TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts” to talk about the Tonys and the future of Broadway. I was in great company because also on the panel were Helen Shaw, the theater critic for New York magazine; and Adam Feldman, the theater editor for Time Out New York and the longtime president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. We all had a lot to say and we discovered that each of us was a card-carrying member of the fan club for the incredible Deirdre O’Connell, who delighted us all when she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Dana H., Lucas Hnath’s play about his mother’s kidnapping by a white supremacist. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

A couple of days before that, BroadwayRadio released the latest installment of “All the Drama,” my podcast about plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over the years. This recent episode focuses on the 1995 winner, Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta. I was lucky enough to get Ben Brantley, the former New York Times theater critic and a longtime Foote fan, to talk with me about Foote and his play.  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.

Meanwhile, I was so taken with one of those new shows I saw, Queen, a drama about two female scientists whose careers and friendship are jeopardized when one finds an error in their research, that I knew I wanted to talk more about the show with its playwright Madhuri Shekar. So I restarted "Stagecraft," my old podcast in which I regularly talked with playwrights and musical book writers but that I had to put on hiatus when Covid shut down theaters in the city. I was delighted—but not at all surprised—to find that Shekar is just as smart and lively as her play is.  You can check out what she had to say by clicking here.  

Finally, James Marino, the head of BroadwayRadio, has invited me to join him and regular commentators Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere on this Sunday’s episode of “This Week on Broadway” to talk about some of the shows we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks and you’ll be able to listen to that by clicking here.

 

 

 


June 11, 2022

"Exception to the Rule" and "soft" Offer Laments on the Tragedy of Being, Young, Poor and Black or Brown in Today's America


The settings and the circumstances are the same in two new off-Broadway shows that portray the plight of the young Black and Brown people who are so often trapped in systems that view them—and force them to see themselves—as failures who have no real future ahead of them.

Both open in sterile classrooms that have seen better days. And each is populated by a half dozen or so teens who are paying penance for wrongdoings. Audiences are seated on either side of both playing areas, creating an intimacy that ultimately makes viewers complicit in each story’s outcome.

The students in Dave Harris’ Exception to the Rule, now playing in the Roundabout Theatre’s Black Box through June 26, have been assigned to detention on the Friday before a holiday week-end. Most of them are no strangers to this purgatory. 

They’ve done penance before for talking back to teachers, violating the school’s dress code, getting into fights and otherwise failing to follow the rules. But the regulars are shocked when they’re joined by Erika, a straight-A student with a rep for doing the right things.

As they wait for the detention-room teacher to show up and sign the pass slips that will allow them to leave, the others flirt and bicker with one another and try to guess why Erica is among them. Director Miranda Haymon has her game young cast playing much of this for laughs and the audience at the matinee I attended eagerly lapped up all the antics.

But then, as announcements over the school’s faulty public address system became more difficult to decipher and more ominous, the students became more frantic, started revealing troubling details about their lives and began to worry about what would happen if the teacher never came and they were never allowed to leave.  

Only two dare to even attempt leaving on their own. And by the end, the room—actors and audience members—was left silent. 

The teacher is very present in Donja R. Love’s soft, which just opened in MCC Theater’s Frankel Theater this week. But the dedication of that teacher, Mr. Isaiah as his students call him, doesn’t seem to make that much difference in the fates of the students at the residential juvenile detention facility where he teaches English. 

At first, things seem more upbeat as the play opens with Mr. Isaiah complimenting his students on their compositions about Othello and encouraging them to write their own poetry. He’s taught them enough about poetic forms that they proudly distinguish between choosing to do cinquains, haikus and sonnets. And he even allows them to freestyle their results to the accompaniment of his beat-boxing (Warning: audience members who aren’t regular hip-hop listeners may have some trouble keeping up with the rapid flow).

These youngsters seem older than the kids in Exception to the Rule, the dysfunctions they’ve experienced are more apparent and the crimes they’ve committed are generally more serious. But both Love and Mr. Isaiah recognize that there is value in these boy-men if only the conditions can be created that will allow it to blossom. 

Instead, Mr. Isaiah is forced to use dilapidated textbooks because there isn’t money for new ones in the institution’s budget, societal norms about black masculinity force the boys to hide any softness within them and the suicide of the most talented and charismatic of the group pushes them all to the breaking point. 

Under the visceral direction of Whitney White and the fight choreography of UnkleDave's Fight-House, their outbursts were so raw and realistic that I found myself worrying for the safety of the actors. Isaiah’s desperation to connect with his students and his sense of guilt when he’d let them down also rang true.

And yet, I didn’t find myself as moved by soft as I had been by Exception to the Rule.

Maybe that’s because the young men in soft were given so many hardships—sexual abuse, parental neglect, homelessness, homophobia, drugs, AIDS—that it seemed to me as though boxes were being checked off as the play leaned into the expected stereotypes without challenging or, at least, deepening them. 

Or maybe it was because having the most fem gay character provide most of the humor also struck me as a tired trope. Or because although the ending—which I won’t spoil—seemed to soothe a good part of the audience at my performance, it annoyed me for wanting to have it both ways.

Still I think what both of these plays are trying to say is that most of the young people in these situations have limited choices. So both plays are worthy of being seen by serious theatergoers but it’s the real-life tragedies they depict to which attention should be paid.

 

 


June 4, 2022

"Dreaming Zenzile" Gets Lost in Its Reveries

Dreaming Zenzile, the musical that opened at New York Theatre Workshop this week, began as a tribute concert.  And it probably should have stayed one.  

The show, a co-production with the National Black Theatre, is now a musical biography that its writer and star Somi Kakoma created to honor her idol, the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba. 

Kakoma has a lush, velvety voice, shares some of Makeba’s winning charisma and she looks terrific in the magnificent gowns that costume designer Mimi Plange created for her. But Kakoma’s dramaturgical chops are disastrously weak.

Dreaming Zenzile (the show takes its title from Makeba’s name in her native Xhosa language) opens at the 2008 concert during which Makeba suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 76. As Kakoma's Makeba tries to resist four white-clad angels of death who have come to carry her away, significant moments in the singer's life flash before her eyes and ours.  

It’s not a bad conceit for a show but there are several problems with the way it unfolds here. For starters, Makeba’s life story isn’t as familiar to most theatergoers as, say, Tina Turner’s is. So the fever-dream-style references to names and incidents just swirl by. And it doesn’t help that director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her actors speaking in over-emphasized African accents that make it difficult to understand what they’re saying.  

There are stops for re-enactments of some of the more dramatic events but they tend to deal with now-tired tropes: the abusive husband, the racism that eats at the singer, the guilt of being an absentee parent. 

There’s no doubt that these things happened to Makeba but similar things happened to Dinah Washington in the 1998 musical Dinah Was, to Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (for which Audra McDonald won her sixth Tony) to Nina Simone in Little Girl Blue which just completed a three-month off-Broadway run and to Tina Turner in her current namesake Broadway musical. So just saying that bad things happen to good and talented women is no longer enough.

With the exception of Tina all these woe-was-her shows tend to be modest affairs, performed with small casts on minimally designed stages.  Dreaming Zenzile hews to type here too. 

There’s a four-piece band onstage and a four-member ensemble who play everything from the angels of death to Makeba’s family, friends and fans over the decades. The actors are talented but they’re called on to morph so quickly from one character to another that I gave up trying to figure out who was who. 

Of course most people come to these shows for the music, to hear the songs that evoke memories for them. Dreaming Zenzile is at a disadvantage here too. Makeba had some hits in the ‘60s, including “The Click Song” and “Pata Pata” but few are remembered today. And although she’s credited with helping to introduce Afro-pop to the the rest of the world, Makeba's songs, at least as presented here, don’t have the exuberance that so animated the hit 2009 musical Fela!  

Some of the songs in Dreaming Zenzile are originals by Kakoma.  But they didn’t jump out for me either. In fact, I found the Afro-pop recordings that played before the show and during the intermission more enjoyable than the tunes in Zenzile.

Lots of people left at intermission during the performance I attended. A few black people in the audience, including the two women sitting in front of me tried to create some supportive energy by swaying their shoulders and bopping their heads to the music but even they eventually ran out of steam.

As for me, I sat there thinking how much more we all might have enjoyed the show if Kakoma, who occasionally seemed to be out of breath after performing Marjani Forté-Saunders’ spirited choreography, had simply followed her first instinct and honored Makeba with the fine tribute concert that she certainly deserves.

 

 

 


May 21, 2022

"Belfast Girls" Updates the History Play


The girls aren’t what they’re expected to be in Belfast Girls, the new show that opened at the Irish Rep this week. They also aren’t what we’ve come to expect to find in historical dramas like this one set in 1850 during the Irish famine in which about a million people starved to death and twice as many fled the country in search of a better life elsewhere. 

And the unexpected makeup of these characters in a history play is precisely what I so admired about this engaging drama by the British playwright Jaki McCarrick. 

 A 2012 finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize that honors female-identifying playwrights, Belfast Girls is inspired by the real-life program in which some 4,000 Irish women volunteered to be shipped to Australia, where they hoped to find husbands among its then-majority male population or to support themselves as servants (click here to read more about it).  

The volunteers were supposed to be teenagers and “morally pure.” But many were considerably older and more than a few had worked as prostitutes. McCarrick’s play imagines the voyage for five of those women who share a steerage cabin during the then-three-month long journey. 

Her women are strangers to one another at first but each has experienced the hardships of the potato famine and each has secrets she’s reluctant to reveal but that, no surprise, will come out over the course of the play as shifting alliances and dangerous rivalries develop among them. It’s the kind of costume drama in which the Brits excel. 

But McCarrick adds some twists. One of the women is Jamaican, the child of a free black woman and a white settler, who ended up in Ireland. Two of the women fall in love. None of that should be remarkable but these kinds of stories seldom get told in these kinds of plays. And they’re particularly welcomed at a time when theater is vowing to be more inclusive.  

I’ve seen lots of shows struggle with that. Many fall back on colorblind casting or making a supporting character gay. But McCarrick has realized that she doesn’t need to shoehorn people of color or queer people into history because they were there all along. Instead she simply weaves these storylines into her overall narrative, and does so without any pat-me-on-the-back fanfare.

The result is a fresh look at a period that has been viewed primarily through the eyes of straight, white men. Of course, none of this would matter if the storytelling were poor. But McCarrick has crafted a crackerjack tale filled with romance, suspense and ruminations on class struggle via references to Marx and Engels. 

Aided by a terrific cast (there’s not a ringer in the bunch) director Nicola Murphy hits all the script’s emotional beats. And the creative team is onboard too. Particular shout-outs go to Chika Shimizu for her eye-catching set, China Lee for the smartly detailed costumes and Caroline Eng for the evocative sound design. 

Some theatergoers have griped about the accents the actors adopt (a common complaint for Irish Rep shows) and, to be honest, a few people left during intermission at the performance I saw. But stay if you go—and you should—because Belfast Girls offers the kind of all-embracing and thoroughly satisfying look at history that theater really needs right now. 

 


May 14, 2022

Celebrating Even Making it to Awards Season

It may seem strange for a theater lover—and hip-hop know-nothing—like me to be quoting the rapper Drake but his self-congratulatory lyrics “Started from the bottom, now we're here” seem particularly apt at this theatrical moment. After all, concerns about the spread of the coronavirus had closed theaters everywhere at this time last year but now, we're here, in the awards phase celebrating a full New York theater season. 

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Broadway shows opened and closed and opened again as infection rates in the city ebbed, surged, wavered. Performances were canceled when stars like Hugh Jackman, Patti LuPone, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig tested positive for the virus. But, thanks to having been vaccinated, they all returned relatively quickly to their productions, even though the Tonys had to extend their deadline so that nominators would be able to see all the shows and all the contending performers. 

Meanwhile, tourists, the lifeblood of Broadway, have been slow to return and the city’s official marketing organization is predicting that visitors to New York will be down about 15% from the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. And even some locals have been skittish about seeing shows, including those off-Broadway. 

All of that has caused premature closings, even of touted shows. The much-praised revival of Nzotake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf announced that it would close next week, three months ahead of schedule, before an online campaign won it a two-week reprieve until June 5. The musical Mrs. Doubtfire is unlikely to be so lucky; after getting just one Tony nomination (for Rob McClure's terrific lead performance) its producers said they will bring down the curtain on May 29.  

On the other hand, people seem happy to pay premium prices to see Jackman in The Music Man, Craig in Macbeth, Parker and her also-starry husband Matthew Broderick in Plaza Suite and Beanie Feldstein headlining Broadway’s first revival of Funny Girl in 55 years, even though those four shows have drawn mixed reviews. 

So the awards this year will have been particularly hard won and may be even more cherished than usual. The Tony nominators tacitly acknowledged that this week when they gave nods to 29 of the 34 shows that opened between Aug. 1, 2021 and May 4, 2022. Even Diana, the much-derided musical about the late princess that ran for just 34 performance, got a nod for its costumes. 

But the biggest bragging rights went to the musical A Strange Loop, which lead the pack with 11 nominations although it was closely followed with 10 each by Paradise Square and MJ, the musical about Michael Jackson. On the play side, The Lehman Trilogy boasted eight nominations, including one for each of its three actors. All the winners will be announced at the ceremony scheduled for June 12. You can find—and debate—the entire list of nominees by clicking here.

Of course the Tonys aren’t the only honors that will be given out over the next few weeks. It can be difficult to keep score because the various awards groups have different qualifying periods. On Monday the Pulitzer Prize committee, which uses a calendar year and recognized A Strange Loop in 2021, gave its award to Fat Ham, a new twist on the Hamlet story by James Ijames that was streamed by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater last year and just started previews for a May 26 opening at The Public Theater. You can read more about it and about the two semi-finalists by clicking here.

A couple of days later the New York Drama Critics’ Circle gave its Best Play prize to Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God, a fantastic play that opened last week at Playwrights Horizons (click here to see my review). It also named Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his 2003 play with a score by Jeanine Tesori, as Best Musical (click here for my thoughts on that one). The musical, which had a brief run at the Atlantic Theatre, is scheduled to open on Broadway in November and you can see the impressive list of runners-up for best play by clicking here.  

There’s even more to come. The Drama Desk, which recognizes Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions, was supposed to announce its nominations on May 2 but pushed them back to this coming Monday.  A day later, the Outer Critics Circle, on whose executive committee I’m proud to serve, will announce our winners for the 2021-2022 season. In the meantime, you can check out the list of our nominees by clicking here.

And this Sunday, I’m going to join my BroadwayRadio colleagues James Marino, Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere to discuss all of this and more on this week’s episode of This Week on Broadway, which you should be able to find here.


May 7, 2022

In Praise of "A Case for the Existence of God"

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God has been almost universally adored by the critics. And the play, which has just been extended at Signature Theatre through May 22, deserves that praise. It’s a beautifully written piece, beautifully directed by David Cromer and beautifully performed by the actors Will Brill and Kyle Beltran

I’ve also been impressed with the many ways in which it speaks to the people who see it. One critic, recently a new father, was moved by the play’s loving portrayal of contemporary fatherhood. Another was taken by its sensitive depiction of male friendship. 

I appreciated all that too but what made A Case for the Existence of God so special to me were its insights into the feelings of alienation that have so divided this country. 

In some ways, you might call Hunter a bard of MAGA country (click here to read an inter view with him). It’s not that he’s an advocate for Fox News watchers but in play after play, Hunter has displayed an empathy for the white working class—be it the cashiers at a Hobby Lobby store in his 2010 breakout play A Bright New Boise, the wait staff in a chain restaurant like the characters in 2014’s Pocatello or the displaced miners in 2019’s Greater Clements.

These are the folks who feel as though the America their parents knew and that they expected to inherit is disappearing and that the world is leaving them behind. Paying heed to those fears and showing those people that they still have a place in our more diverse society might have made them less susceptible to troublemaking extremists in 2016 and on Jan. 6, 2021—and might yet make a difference in this year's important midterm elections. 

Like all of Hunter’s plays, A Case for the Existence of God takes place in the playwright’s native Idaho. The specific setting this time is Twin Falls, a real city with a population of about 50,000 people, but the symbolism of its name shouldn’t be overlooked. The play’s two characters are Keith, a black mortgage broker; and Ryan, a white first-time buyer. Both are in free fall when we meet them.  

Keith, who is college-educated and has a dual degree in Early Music and English, is gay and acutely aware of living in a place where black people are in a distinct minority. Ryan, who only made it through high school and works the line at a yogurt plant, is straight and desperately wants to buy some land that his ancestors originally homesteaded but that his family lost over the years.

You can almost see the banners of blue-state elite and red-state yokel waving over their heads. But Hunter doesn’t deal in polemics, even when making room for his characters to complain about their circumstances. 

Although brought up in the comfort of a middle-class family, Keith still bears the emotional scars of being bullied for his race and sexuality by Ryan and his friends when they were in high school. The child of addicts, Ryan feels that he drew the shorter end of the stick. "I’m sure it was hard for you, growing up in this town, I’m sure it’s still hard to live in this town," he tells Keith. "But you know what else is hard?! Being in this town and being dirt fucking poor!"

But Hunter's plays work because he refuses to allow his characters to be identified solely by their grievances and instead digs deep into the specifics that reveal the humanity beneath their issues. Here it's that both Keith and Ryan are fathers. Keith is trying to adopt the little girl he’s been foster parenting since she was an infant. The recently-divorced Ryan is fighting for joint custody of his daughter. 

Despite their differences, the men bond over their love for their children and the loneliness they both feel in a country that seems to save its best stuff for people who aren't them. “I think we share a specific kind of sadness,” Ryan tells Keith.

Although the actors never leave the cramped space of Keith's office, the narrative moves forward over several weeks (shout-out to the invaluable lighting design by Tyler Micoleau) as their characters struggle to negotiate the financial and governmental bureaucracies that will determine their fates. 

I’m obviously not going to spoil the outcome for you.  But I will say that Hunter doesn’t just show empathy, he prescribes it. I think that what he's saying is that the only way we’re going to get out of our current political morass is to accept the ways in which people on all sides fail, to acknowledge and attempt to ease the pains each of us suffers and to join in celebrating the things we all cherish.  

The saying goes that the devil is in the details, but in this play, the case for the hope that God represents is quietly but effectively made in the interstices between its lines. And that's what makes this such a work of wonder.


April 30, 2022

Four New Shows Try to Answer the Question "What Kind of Show Belongs on Broadway?"



Seventeen shows opened or reopened on Broadway this month and as I bounced from one to the other, I found myself asking what exactly is a Broadway show. The simplest answer to that question is, of course, any show that’s on Broadway. But as the four shows below demonstrate, it isn’t always that simple. 

THE LITTLE PRINCE found that out the hard way. This adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 novella uses music, dance, fanciful costumes and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobatics to tell the story of the titular character’s metaphysical travels to various planets in search of love and friendship. It’s been a hit in Europe, Australia and the Middle East and was supposed to enjoy a four-month run at the Broadway Theatre as part of its world tour. But the lack of dialog, the heavy reliance on videos and the confusing narrative seemed out of place on Broadway. Critics panned the show and theatergoers didn’t seem to know what to make of it either (about a fifth of the audience left at intermission the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show). So this week,  just two weeks after its April 11 opening, the show’s producers announced that it would close early on May 8.   

On the other hand, some shows seem tailor-made for Broadway. MRS. DOUBTFIRE, a staged version of the 1993 movie that starred Robin Williams as a divorced dad so desperate to be with his kids that he masquerades as a female nanny, fits right into the trend of popular films that have become Broadway shows. Directed by musical-comedy maestro Jerry Zaks, it’s funny and colorful, filled with witty songs by the brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (click here to read more about them) and features a bravura performance by Rob McClure. The Outer Critics Circle, of which I’m proud to be a member, liked it too and this week we awarded it six nominations (click here to see all of them), including one for Catherine Zuber’s terrific costumes, which allow McClure to quick change from his male to female personas right in front of the audience. This is an old-fashioned show, the kind that used to advertise itself as one the whole family could enjoy.  And I think they actually would.  
 
A STRANGE LOOP might seem an odd candidate for a Broadway run but this musical about a young would-be musical maker who is black, queer, somewhat overweight and totally insecure has drawn some of the best reviews of the season. The show, whose semi-autobiographical book, score and lyrics were all written by Michael R. Jackson, also won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the 10th musical to be awarded that honor (South Pacific, Rent and Hamilton are among the others). The show boasts a bunch of ear-wormy songs, a narrative that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and a slew of terrific performances including one by 23-year-old Jaquel Spivey who just graduated from college last spring and lends the main character a winning vulnerability (click here to learn more about him).  But A Strange Loop also has graphic depictions of sex, some blasphemous representations of religion and lots of profanity, including the n-word. I was a fan when the show played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons back in 2019 (click here to read my review) but I worry that this is the kind of offbeat show that despite being embraced by the theater cognoscenti might have a harder time drawing in the civilians on whom Broadway depends and is eager to woo back after the long pandemic pause. So I’m curious to see whether it will stick its Broadway landing.


Star vehicles have always found a home on Broadway and Billy Crystal’s MR. SATURDAY NIGHT could be the epitome of that genre. This new musical is based on Crystal’s 1992 movie about a once-famous comic trying to make a comeback. His protagonist Buddy Young Jr. was a big shot in the era of 1950s variety shows but 40 years later, finds himself unhappily doing gigs in nursing homes until he’s given one last shot at the big time. The movie portrayed Buddy as an egoist who mistreated his brother, wife and daughter as he climbed to the top. But Crystal, who grew up in a showbiz family, has long revered those Golden Age comics and he shares their appetite for Borscht Belt humor and their hunger for applause and so he and his collaborators—the Hollywood screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell who worked with him on the book and the Broadway vets Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green who do the score—have softened the character, allowing Crystal to woo the audience. I had thought his shtick might be outdated and have limited appeal but, if the the two 14-year-old boys sitting next to me who kept doubling over with laughter are any indication, Mr. Saturday Night could play for many nights to come. 


April 22, 2022

Riding High With "How I Learned to Drive"

We’re in the midst of the spring crush when new shows are opening literally every night as they rush in to be considered for the awards that celebrate the end of each theater season. 

So fifteen shows have been scheduled to open on Broadway this month and that doesn’t include the reopening of Mrs. Doubtfire, which Covid concerns shut down twice before, or the resurrection of the previously closed Beetlejuice

Meanwhile at least eight attention-worthy productions have been scheduled for off-Broadway, including the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Barry Manilow’s Holocaust-themed musical Harmony and the hot new version of Cyrano de Bergerac at BAM with a buff James McAvoy in the title role. 

I’ve been running around to as many of them as I can to prepare for the awards nominating and voting I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks and, to be honest, I’m too exhausted to write about what I’ve seen as deeply as I like to do here. However, one thing has given me so much joy that I’ve had to find a way to share it with you. And that’s been the deservedly rapturous response to the Broadway debut of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. 

Ever since I first saw it at the Vineyard Theatre back in 1997, I have loved this memory play about the complicated relationship between a young girl and the uncle who sexually abused her. Its 2012 revival at Second Stage Theatre was also superb (click read to read my review of it) and caused me to start lobbying for the play to be included in what I call the Mount Rushmore of Great American Plays, right alongside Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of  A  Salesman, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and August Wilson’s Fences.            And yes, it really is that good.

This long overdue Broadway production of How I Learned to Drive stars Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, reprising their roles from the original 1997 production and doing it once again under the direction of Mark Brokaw. 

They, and of course the play, are as splendid as I remember they were and here’s the bottom line of what would have been my review of this revival: If you consider yourself a true theater lover, you should see it if there is any way that you can get to Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theater before its run there is scheduled to end on May 29.

In the meantime, you can also listen to an interview about the show that I had the great privilege of doing with Vogel for "All the Drama," my BroadwayRadio podcast on plays that have won the Pulitzer Prize. You can find it by clicking here.


April 16, 2022

The Missteps of "Paradise Square" and "Suffs"


Making a good musical is hard. Now I don’t consider that statement to be a conceptual scoop that no one has ever considered before. But the thought has been much on my mind after seeing and being somewhat disappointed by two of the big new musicals that have opened this month.

Somewhere near the end of the first act of Paradise Square, the very ambitious Broadway show about the free black people and Irish immigrants who lived in New York’s Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War, my niece Jennifer leaned over and whispered “I am so lost.”  

And somewhere near the end of the first act of Suffs, The Public Theater’s very earnest musical that features a cast of female and non-binary performers re-creating the struggle to get American women the right to vote, I found myself wondering “why aren’t I more into this?” 

I think the problem for both of these shows is that they’re trying to do too much. Each attempts to juggle 10 or more main characters in multiple storylines. And although set in the past, each also aims to cater to modern sensibilities. It’s somewhat distressing to watch as they strain to carry all that weight.

Paradise Square also bears the extra burden of being the comeback vehicle for producer Garth Drabinksy, whose former company Livent produced Ragtime and other hits back in the ‘90s, until he was accused of financial misdoings, convicted of fraud and forgery and eventually served 17 months of a five-year sentence (click here to read more about that). 

But while Ragtime had such veteran show makers as Terrence McNally adapting that musical’s book from the award-winning novel by E.L. Doctorow, Stephen Flaherty composing the score and his partner Lynn Ahrens writing the lyrics, Paradise Square is an original story whose book is credited to three writers, its score to two composers (who the Playbill notes were inspired by a third) and its lyrics to yet two other people. And there are rumors that even more contributors got left off the Playbill title page. 

Reports say the show started off as a musical about the white 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster, who is known for such minstrel tunes as “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home". But in the final stage version, the focus has shifted to a fictional African-American saloon keeper named Nelly O’Brien.

Nelly has inherited the Paradise Square bar from her father and it’s become a safe place where the races happily mix and mate (she’s married to an Irish immigrant who has enlisted in the Union Army; her Irish sister-in-law is married to a black preacher who is a station master on the Underground Railroad that helps slaves escape to Canada) and everyone competes in friendly dance-offs that pit the step dancing of the Irish against the Juba dancing of the blacks. 

But all of that is put in jeopardy when growing numbers of poor whites are reluctantly conscripted to become cannon fodder in the war, while blacks who are eager to fight for black emancipation are denied the right to bear arms. 

There’s actually a whole lot more plot (including some stuff about a saintly lesbian couple) but I don’t have the space for it here.  And unfortunately director Moisés Kaufman seems to have been as confused as my niece about how to keep track of all of it. The result is a show filled with sketchily drawn characters and spotty storytelling despite a talented cast lead by Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly (click here to read more about her). 

It’s still rare for a black performer to get top billing in an interracial cast and Kalukango steps up to the challenge. Her powerfully delivered 11 o’clock number literally brought the audience to its feet at the performance Jennifer and I attended.

Alas, the music isn’t as memorable, except for the legacy melodies by Foster (who I forgot to say is still a character in the show).  So the production leans heavily on its dancing, which is credited to the Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, although the Playbill also gives Alex Sanchez credit for musical staging. 

Whoever did what, the dance numbers are fun at first but become less so as the same movements are repeated again and again. And again. In the end, Paradise Square is a victim of too many cooks (including no doubt Drabinsky too) in its creative kitchen, all trying to satisfy differing tastes, too nervous about offending anyone and so ending up with something that is palatable but a little bland.

Unlike Paradise Square, Suffs is the product of a singular vision. Shaina Taub not only wrote the book, musical and lyrics for her show but took on the role of Alice Paul, one of the main strategists in getting the Nineteenth Amendment passed to give women the right to vote.

Paul may be the show’s central figure but Taub is also determined to recognize as many women as she can, particularly women of color. So such figures as the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells and the civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell are given significant roles—and rousing anthems to sing. 

But incorporating these women into the main narrative isn’t easy because historically white suffragist leaders kept their black and brown sisters at a distance in order to placate white southern feminists. So the Wells and Terrell storylines are sidelined, sometimes literally at stage left. 

Other attempts to be inclusive—the cast includes black women, Asian women, Hispanic women, gender fluid women and one woman who uses a wheel chair—are admirable but occasionally confusing. I couldn’t always tell when the black actors were supposed to be playing African-American feminists or colorblind cast as white characters. And in this play, that matters.

Still, it’s apparent how much it means to Taub to give all her characters their proper place in the American story by viewing history through a different lens, just as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton did by casting actors of color to play the Founding Fathers (click here to read more about the making of her show). 

But while most of us know the story of the American Revolution (and the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their crew) only a few of us have heard of such feminist Founding Mothers as Carrie Chapman Catt, Inez Milholland or Ruza Wenclawska. So Taub has larded her mostly sung-through text with big chunks of exposition, making her show sometimes come off like a history class pageant or an after school special.

I also have to confess that I was disappointed by the direction of the Tony-winning Leigh Silverman and by the choreography of Raja Feather Kelly, neither of whom has brought their customary creative flair to this production. The one flourish involving a mechanical horse failed to work the night I saw the show, delaying the start of the performance by over half an hour and later stranding the Hamilton vet Phillippa Soo, who had to clamber down from it in sight of the audience.

To be fair, both Paradise Square and Suffs have had to suspend performances or call in standbys and understudies because company members tested positive for Covid. I saw Suffs when two of the actors playing principal roles, including Taub, were out. 

Taub’s presence might have brought a different energy to the evening. But so might have centering the story around just one or two central characters, perhaps showcasing the internecine battles between Alice Paul and the two-decades older Carrie Chapman Catt, especially since Catt is so wonderfully played by Come From Away’s Jenn Collela. 

Neither Paradise Square nor Suffs is truly bad. But neither is as rewarding as it might have been either.  As I said, making a good musical is hard.

 


April 9, 2022

"Confederates” Surveys Some Common Ground Bridging the Past and the Present

In the opening monologue of Confederates, now running at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 24, a college professor runs down a list of popular culture centered around slavery. 

“I have,” she says, “seen ‘12 Years a Slave,’ Slave Play, The Slave, another play— not the same, ‘Birth of a Nation,’ ‘The Birth of a Nation’ —very different movies,  Father Comes Home from the Wars, An Octoroon, ‘Harriet,’ ‘Underground,’ ‘Underground Railroad,’ ‘Amistad,’ ‘Sankofa,’ ‘Beloved,’ ‘Unchained Memories,’ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ‘Glory,’ and even ‘Django Unchained,’ though there are serious debates to be had over the qualifications of that last one.”

I took this litany to be playwright Dominique Morisseau’s sly way of commenting on how the people who green light movies, TV shows and plays seem to prefer stories about black people that are set in the past. It may also be her way of gently chiding the folks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project who, with Penumbra Theater, commissioned her to create a work about the black experience during the Civil War. 

Morisseau is known for such nuanced plays about the contemporary black experience as Pipeline and Skeleton Crew (which just completed a short Broadway run in February) and for being an outspoken advocate for black people to call their own shots (the Playbill for Confederates includes a “Permission of Engagement” that says audience members are “allowed to laugh audibly and give all the ‘urn hmmms’ and ‘uhn uhnnns’ you feel inspired to give”). So it's no surprise that she has refused to be confined by the directive she was given.

Instead of restricting Confederates to the Civil War era, she has set the play in two time periods: the 1860s when an enslaved woman named Sara courageously undertakes the risky assignment of spying for the Union Army and the present when a political science professor named Sandra gamely tries to balance the complex challenges that come with being one of the few tenured black professors at an Ivy League-style college.

The idea, Morisseau has explained, is to show the continuum of the struggle that African-American women have had to wage to break through the restrictions that others impose on them (click here to read an interview with her). 

That's a lot to pack into the play's 90-minute running time but under Stori Ayer’s nimble direction, the play hops back and forth between crisis points in the two women’s lives. And Kristolyn Lloyd as Sara and Michelle Wilson as Sandra, both veterans of previous Morisseau works, do a fine job of showing the grit their characters must summon up to combat oppression in each period.

The other three members of the cast do double duty as characters in both eras, changing costumes right in front of the audience as they move from one narrative to the other, with Sara’s quarrelsome runaway brother becoming one of Sandra’s quarrelsome students, while the high-strung daughter of the white plantation owner morphs into an overly woke white student.

But, alas, all that effort doesn't work as well as one might hope. It’s tough to draw an equivalency between the burdens that enslaved women experienced and the pressures that professional black women confront today. 

Sandra’s frustration over a photograph in which someone has superimposed her head on the body of a slave woman with a white child suckling at her bare breast is understandable but it pales in comparison to the myriad ways in which a slave woman like Sara was routinely dehumanized. 

Plus, Morisseau is clearly more animated by the freshness of the present-day story, which has Sandra grappling with both micro-aggressions from her white students and colleagues and unrealistic expectations from her black ones.

It's not that Morisseau's uninterested in the 1860 segments but she and Ayer depict them more broadly, causing them to come across like scenes from “Due North,” the over-the-top parody slave drama that the characters on the HBO show “Insecure” used to watch. It's as though Morisseau is saying it’s time to move on to other aspects of the black experience.  To which I say, Amen.



April 2, 2022

Some Old-Fashioned Fun with "The Music Man," "MJ The Musical" and "Plaza Suite"


Here’s the dilemma: reviews are usually written by people who see anywhere between 200 and 300 shows a year but the people who read those reviews may see only two or three shows a year, often saving up to see them. So you can understand how those groups might have differing ideas about what makes for a satisfying show.

The critics weren’t crazy about the new revival of The Music Man, finding it to be miscast with leads who are too old for their roles, too eager to please the audience and not up to singing the score. But people are flocking to it because they want to see the much beloved performers Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster onstage in any lead roles (click here to see an interview with him). 

My college roommate who lives in California bought her tickets before previews even began. And she clearly isn’t the only one excited about the show. The gross ticket sales for The Music Man are dwarfing those of all other Broadway shows including such longtime big draws as Hamilton and The Lion King. 

There’s been a similar parting of opinion about MJ The Musical, which has terrific turns from a trio of performers playing the title MJ, Michael Jackson, at various stages in his life but whose real star is the songbook of Jackson’s ever-popular hits. 

And there's also a schism over Plaza Suite, the revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy about three couples that opened this week starring the famous real-life married couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker (click here for an interview with them). 

The critics were ho-hum about those shows too; while regular theatergoers could barely contain their delight. “God, that was fantastic,” a woman exclaimed to no one in particular as she jubilantly made her way out of the MJ performance I saw.

I get where the critics are coming from. They—we—see so much that they long for shows that push theater forward, be it in style or substance. But Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, a story about a con artist whose plan to bilk some townsfolk is upended when he falls in love with the local librarian, is an old-fashioned show that glorifies a white-bread version of small-town America that can’t be rectified simply by colorblind casting the people in the town as this production does.  

Plaza Suite shares a similar obsolescence problem. Sexual mores and gender roles have changed and what was titillating or funny back in the late ‘60s can come off as offensive or just lame today even when the performers are such seasoned—and hardworking—pros as Broderick and Parker. 

MJ, which charts Jackson’s life from his breakout as the lead singer of The Jackson 5 in the 1970s to his reign as the King of Pop preparing for a worldwide tour in the early '90s, is certainly a contemporary story and the music, filled with such head-bopping hits as “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” remains irresistible. 

But even though the show ends before the first public accusations of molesting children were made against him in 1993, Jackson was a complicated man and many critics have knocked the show and its book writer Lynn Nottage for failing to get inside his head to reveal what made him tick.

Yet I don’t think the people literally lining up to see these shows care about any of that. They just want to have a good time and to feel that they got their money’s worth. And I think all three shows deliver on those fronts (unless maybe you’re paying $700 for the premium seats at The Music Man or $600 for those at Plaza Suite). Because these are the kind of colorful, star-studded song-and-dance-and-have-a laugh shows that most people think of when they hear the words “a Broadway show.” 

The dance numbers alone in The Music Man and MJ are worth the price of admission. And they’re performed by gifted, almost gravity-defying ensembles (click here to read an interview with Music Man’s choreographer Warren Carlyle and click here for one with MJ’s Christopher Wheeldon). Awards voters are going to have a tough time determining who should take home the award for choreography this year. 

Meanwhile John Lee Beatty's gorgeous set and Jane Greenwood's witty costumes (not to mention the joy of seeing the married stars together onstage for the first time in 25 years) will give Plaza Suite ticket holders something to talk about with friends and neighbors when they get home. 

This split between what the critics want (something that takes a risk) and what most real people want (a sure bet) has already set off a debate this season about whether every show needs to be serious or ground breaking or whether shows can just be fun (click here to read one of those back-and forths). My theatergoing tastes tend to lean toward the serious but right now, I’m going to be speak up for fun. 

Even the Greeks who created modern theater knew that you need both. They required playwrights entering their annual competitions to submit three dramas plus what was known as a Satyr play. The latter were often bawdy and always funny works.  No cultural celebration was considered complete without one.

So we certainly should be able to make room for those kinds of “just entertaining” shows in this season. Besides, there’s more than one way for a show to be meaningful. 

Sitting behind me and my niece Jennifer at the performance of MJ we saw were a father and his daughter who looked to be about 12. The dad clearly knew all the songs and during the intermission he shared stories about them with his kid who hung on to every word. 

And who, be they comped critic or ticker buyer, wouldn't agree that such bonding is precisely the kind of thing that makes theater so meaningful for all of us.  


March 26, 2022

Paying Proper Respect to "The Chinese Lady"

There are so many things to admire about Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady which is currently running at The Public Theater through April 10.  And here are just a few of them.

ADMIRATION #1: The Chinese Lady tells a fresh story.  A co-production of The Barrington Stage and Ma-Yi Theater companies, this two-hander is inspired by the life of Afong Moy, who is believed to have been the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. back in 1834, and it puts the spotlight on a part of American history that has too long been overlooked.

Fewer than 300 Chinese were living in the U.S. when the importer brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne worked out a deal with Moy’s father that allowed them to bring the 14-year-old to New York because they thought her presence would help promote the Asian goods they were trying to sell to the public.  

They displayed her in a room decorated with Chinese objects and charged people to watch as she sat dressed in traditional garments, ate with chopsticks, performed a tea ceremony and—the real crowd-pleaser—took small steps around the room on feet that had been traditionally bound to produce the tiny appendages that were then considered objects of beauty in China. 

ADMIRATION #2: The Chinese Lady tells a story we really need to hear right now. Suh slyly turns Moy’s 30-year career as an object of exoticism into a poignant meditation on how Asian people, particularly Asian woman, have been othered in this country from the very beginning of their time here.  

He, director Ralph B. Peña and video projection director Shawn Duan also insert other bits of Chinese-American history throughout this 90-minute production, reminding theatergoers of—or maybe introducing them to—the discriminatory acts that were committed against the Chinese, ranging from lynchings and massacres to the enactment of laws that limited their immigration into this country until as recently as the 1960s (click here for more of that history). 

This is all sadly relevant right now because this month marks the first anniversary of the Atlanta shootings in which a young white man targeted salons run by Asian woman and killed six of them. 

In fact, between March 2020 (when former President Trump started calling the coronavirus “the China virus”) and December 2021, more than 10,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported and 70% of them were directed at women, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate (click here to read more about that). 

And the violence hasn’t stopped. In January an Asian woman named Michelle Alyssa Go was killed when she was pushed in front of a train at the Times Square subway station. Earlier this month another white man conducted a scary two-hour spree in which he randomly assaulted eight Asian women in the city. And even during previews of The Chinese Lady, an Asian dancer was assaulted on his way to perform at the Public (click here for more on all of that).

ADMIRATION #3: The Chinese Lady tells a highly entertaining story. Despite the shameful legacy of past and current abuse, Suh generously leavens his play with humor, much of it delivered by the show’s second character Atung, who serves as Moy’s attendant, interpreter and more. 

Both Daniel K. Isaac who plays Atung (click here to read a profile about him) and Shannon Tyo who plays Moy have to walk a tightrope as they balance their performances between acknowledging the stereotypes that have long been assigned to characters like theirs and revealing the complex people who have always existed behind those facades. 

The final scenes of the play go on a bit too long but to say that these two excellent actors do an admirable job would be a gross understatement.

ADMIRATION #4: The Chinese Lady is being told to an audience that really should hear this story. One of the things I most admire about this show is that it is being done at the Public. 

Ma-Yi, a company dedicated to promoting new works by Asian-American playwrights, first produced The Chinese Lady in 2018 and although it earned great reviews from those who saw it, that production isn’t even listed in the database of off-Broadway shows run by the Lortel Foundation. 

I’m not badmouthing the foundation because I didn’t go see the show back then either. It’s too easy—even for people like me who see lots of stuff and like to think of ourselves as being inclusive—to overlook shows by small companies, particularly small ethnically-specific companies. 

Ma-Yi has been around since 1989 and yet I can count the previous Ma-Yi productions I’ve seen on one hand.  And I don’t even need that hand to count the Repertorio Español productions I’ve seen because I haven’t seen any. 

I’m not proud of this track record but I am grateful that the Public is providing a chance for people like me to see the kind of excellent work that we’ve been missing out on. The Chinese Lady's run is now completely sold out but if this is an example of the Ma-Yi’s work, we should all keep an eye out for what it does in the future.


March 12, 2022

"This Space Between Us" Needs More Filling


There are so many themes—cultural assimilation, filial responsibility, sibling rivalry, climate change, animal cruelty, homophobia—packed into This Space Between Us that this new dramedy, which opened this week in a Keen Company production at Theatre Row, could be interpreted as about almost anything you want it to be about.  Which isn’t actually a good thing.

At the center of it all is a 34-year-old guy named Jamie. He’s a successful corporate lawyer. He has a loving marriage with his magazine editor husband Ted. His working-class Cuban-American dad and Anglo mom adore him.  As do his Asian-American BFF Gillian and his mother’s sister Pat who is a nun.  

And yet, Jamie isn’t happy.  He thinks he should be doing more to make the world a better place and so in the opening scene he announces that he’s quitting his job and going to work for a nonprofit that does good work in Africa. No one in his relationship bubble, except maybe his nun aunt, thinks this is a good idea and they spend the rest of the play acting out on their concerns.

I think playwright Peter Gil-Sheridan wants to look at what it means to be a good person in these complicated times in which we live. And that raises all kinds of questions since most of us like to think of ourselves as good people. 

Among those questions is whether it's O.K. to use outdated language as Jamie’s father does when referring to Gillian or Ted as long as his heart is in the right place and his own circle of friends is diverse.  Or if Ted’s sustainability-driven veganism makes up for the blatant materialism of his buying things like Cartier watches. 

And where does the white savior complex fit into all of this, especially when the people purportedly being saved engage in bad behavior of their own?

Unfortunately, Gil-Sheridan doesn’t spend much time pondering any of this. Instead, he peppers his script with quips and wisecracks and other distractions like an extended hospital scene in which Ted’s HIV status is revealed and then never referred to again.

The cast is game but director Jonathan Silverstein doesn’t offer themor us in the audiencemuch help. Most of his energy seems to have gone into choreographing the busy scene changes in which the actors cart furniture on and off stage to establish the various locales including a race track, Jamie and Ted’s living room, Jamie’s office and, of course, that hospital room. 

My blogger friend Jonathan Mandell said in his review that the show was "more well-meaning than well-put together" (click here to read his full review) and I sadly agree with him. Afterall, as the show itself says, to create something good in the world you need more than good intentions.  

March 5, 2022

"sandblasted" Lacks True Grit

The playwright Charly Evon Simpson had written a bunch of stuff before she got her breakthrough three years ago with Behind the Sheet, a devastating drama about how the father of American gynecology callously conducted experiments on enslaved black women to try out his pioneering techniques, many of which are still used today. 

The play earned Simpson the kind of attention all young playwrights yearn for and yet when I interviewed her for my podcast "Stagecraft" (click here to listen to that) she admitted to being uneasy about profiting from the pain of black people. So I totally get why her new play sandblasted, which opened in a WP Theatre production at the Vineyard this week, aimed to be a comedy.  But, I’m sad to say, when I saw it, I found too little to laugh about. 

Sandblasted is a self-consciously absurdist piece whose premise is rooted in the idea that black women are literally falling apart. Within the first 10 minutes, the arm of one of its characters falls off. This metaphorical amputation is supposed to be simultaneously shocking and funny.  And it kind of is but then Simpson doesn’t seem to know what to do with it after that.

The temporarily one-armed woman (she finds a way to stick it back on) is Odessa who is at a wellness retreat where she meets and testily bonds with Angela, who is also seeking a way to deal with the mysterious malady that is besetting black women. The place is owned by Adah, an older black woman who has become an Oprah-like celebrity guru because she appears to be effortlessly holding on to her body parts. 

Now here's where I should give you some sense of the play’s narrative or moral but I can’t because there really isn’t one. Although Simpson clearly wants to comment on the crippling pressures that racism and sexism put on contemporary black women, she keeps digging around in the absurdist toolkit and in the process diminishes the pain those stresses can cause.  

So instead of a clear storyline, we get lots of unnecessary—and confusing—time shifting, a few long-winded monologues and a couple of overt nods to Samuel Beckett. Sandblasted opens with the women buried in sand (hello Happy Days) and most of the rest of it involves their waiting around for something to come and cure their existential ills (hey there Waiting for Godot).

I’ll confess that absurdist plays aren’t really my cup of tea. But I have enjoyed—and sometimes have been transported by—the works of Beckett and Edward Albee and Eugéne Ionesco. What distinguished their plays for me is that those playwrights set a clear theatrical grammar for their work and then spun poetry within it. 

Simpson is a talented, and even poetic, writer but her grammar is loosey-goosey.  Angela and Odessa too easily shift between determination and resignation. Angela's brother appears out of nowhere and then vanishes right back into it. 

And the play gives me no idea of whether I should regard Adah as a shaman or a charlatan. Even the self-consciously lower-cased “s” of its title seems to be straining for a post-modern relevance that the play can’t figure out how to develop.

That places a lot of burden on the director Summer L. Williams and her actors.  And they work hard to carry it. Maybe a little too hard. 

Marinda Anderson who plays Odessa and Brittany Bellizeare who plays Angela are engaging performers but, given such opaque characters, they tend to fall back on the sassiness that has become shorthand for the way black women are supposed to interact with the world but that I, a black woman, so seldom use in real life and am tired of seeing on stages. 

Most of the critical praise has been directed at Rolonda Watts, a longtime TV news personality here in New York who plays Adah. She, too, works hard (and looks great) and she gives the show some grace notes, particularly at the end.  Alas, I'm just not convinced it earns them. 

February 26, 2022

"English" Has Some Valuable Things to Say


There have been so many voices absent from the American stage that sometimes we don’t even know what we’ve been missing until we suddenly hear it. English, the deceptively simple play by Sanaz Toossi that opened at the Atlantic Theater this week, perked up my ears in all kinds of ways.  

The play is set in 2008 in an English-language school in the Iranian city of Karaj. For the sake of the play's narrative, each of the four students in the class has a conveniently different reason for wanting to speak English.

Teenage Goli is just fascinated by it. While middle-aged Roya is being forced to learn it because her grown son living in Canada won't allow her to see his children until she can speak to them in English rather than Farsi.

And, of course, each student has a different facility for learning English. Omid, the only male in the class, is almost totally fluent with only the mere trace of an accent but has his own reasons for taking the class. Elham, who has been admitted to medical school in Australia, is frustrated that she can’t seem to master the language despite her obvious smarts. 

Their teacher Marjan, a former émigré who has returned to Iran after living in England for nine years, insists that only English be spoken in class, even as her own comfort with the language is starting to fray. The interactions between her and her students unspool in a series of brief scenes that represent their class sessions over the course of a semester. 

All of their struggles with English become a stand-in for the ways in which the languages we speak shape our sense of who we are in the world, how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Toossi, the California-born daughter of Iranian immigrants; and her director Knud Adams, who spent his first 15 years living in Europe, have smartly constructed the play so that the characters speak haltingly and with accents when they’re supposed to be talking in English but speak fluent and totally accent-free English when the script calls for them to lapse into their native Farsi.  

The entire cast—all seemingly of Middle Eastern descent—is excellent. However what got to me is the play’s reminder that the way so many newcomers in this country speak English often gives such a false sense of who they truly are. 

But the part that really got me was the way Toossi crafted both her story and her dialog to upend stereotypes about Muslims, particularly Muslim women. 

Her female characters are devout and irreverent. They smoke and flirt and cuss up a storm when they’re speaking in their native tongue. In short, they’re just human beings instead of symbols. 

And it’s so refreshing to have their stories told without the overhang of terrorism or the other devastations that tend to pop up in plays and films about people from their part of the world. To have these different tales told by someone who has an insider's sense of that experience—and without having it fractured through the gaze of what outsiders think it to be—is a joy in itself.  

Focusing on the personal stories amidst political events is already a trademark for the 30-year-old Toossi who only completed her M.F.A from NYU four years ago (click here to read more about her). 

Another of Toossi's plays Wish You Were Here (which is scheduled to open at Playwrights Horizons in April) was inspired by her mother’s experiences and centers around a group of female friends who live through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath. 

Here again, the usual tropes about women being forced to change their dress and give up their jobs or their studies are moved into the background, while the play’s main narrative—which includes four weddings and an almost funeral— deals with the friendships between the women. It debuted two years ago as part of the Williamstown Festival’s audio season that you can still listen to on Audible.com by clicking here.

Neither of Toossi’s plays is perfect.  She’s still a young writer.  But she is clearly a talented one who is adding an important voice to the American theatrical conversation. And now having heard it, I’m eager to hear more of what she has to say.